A gust of drums and a deluge of syllables packaged in an ever-expanding novella of a song. These were my feelings when I first heard The Decemberists’ “The Infanta” back in 2005. The opening track to Picaresque, the song, the album and the band all resurrected my love for music. And to hear this song performed by the 2015 incarnation of the Portland, Oregon-based indie eccentrics this past Tuesday at the Academy of Music was as exhilarating as it was the first time on CD. Before a sell-out crowd the Colin Meloy-led quintet were as captivating as ever.
Never ones to shy away from challenging themselves and their audiences with concept works (see, for example, The Tain and The Hazards of Love) and genre redefinitions (like the Americana of “Rox in the Box” and “Carolina Low”), The Decemberists’ 2015 release, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, is a bag of many musical tricks and treats. And to highlight this, they opened with the album’s opening track “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” A dramatic flourish of Meloy entering a darkened stage alone with thick white lights illuminating his professorial attire is countered by the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the lyrics (“And we’re aware that you cut your hair/In a style that our drummer wore”).
The entire band then entered: guitar specialist Chris Funk, bassist of small and large varieties Nate Query, percussion provocateur John Moen and keyboard-accordion prodigy Jenny Conlee, as well two touring additions in Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. And as the lights illuminated the stage, the cover image of What a Terrible World was a bold tapestry as the backdrop, with some of the drawings being represented here as bold 3D cutouts. A true spectacle was unfolding.
Meloy walked up to the edge of the stage and held his guitar high. Other than a few momentary encounters with a child in the front row, this is the closest Meloy or the rest of the band got to the audience, despite previous waltzes into the aisles of Tower Theater or even a climb up to the balcony of Electric Factory (let alone the audience members that came onstage at their last Philly show at the Academy in 2011). But any thought of this indicating a shift in The Decemberists’ paradigm goes out the window when the show itself is what the crowd is there for. And the remaining hour and 50 or so minutes were musically spectacular.
The night was a showcase for some of their greatest achievements. Two suites dominated the set. After a stirring “Carolina Low” from the new record, Meloy segued perfectly into “The Hazards of Love 1.” This, when followed by the next two tracks on the album and the stirring “The Rake’s Song,” shows how compelling the mythic dark fairytale is in smaller doses. The crowd, which appeared to be on its feet from the beginning of the show, was certainly amazed. Then Meloy and company dipped into another mystic set of songs in doing all three parts of “The Crane Wife” in succession. Such virtuoso shifts from one large chamber piece to the next certainly justifies their ability to play a venue as grand as the Academy and The Decemberists certainly owned the space on this night.
Where the show is a headscratcher is in its omissions of much of the new LP. A strong and varied achievement, to play only 6 of the 14 tracks seems to be slighting it. The great rocker “Cavalry Captain” as well as the stirring guitar solo on “Til the Water’s All Long Gone” would have sounded brilliant in the venue. And to not play “Lake Song,” which harkens back to their early days and even pre-Decemberists territory in Meloy’s band Tarkio and is one of the best songs in the entire Decemeberists catalogue is a mini-travesty.
Sure they played the instantly catchy “Make You Better” and the profoundly somber “12/17/12,” which was the only setlist change as “June Hymn” was originally slotted to be performed then. For an album with such a great breadth, more selections would showcase its greatness.
Nonetheless, this is a small quibble in the end since what was performed was seemingly enjoyed by most in attendance, as applause and audience interaction was at peak levels. And Meloy and the band loved the crowd back. This was not a forgone conclusion as their last two shows in the City of Brotherly Love had some odd occurrences. At the Tower in 2009 Meloy beckoned the crowd to come up front from their seats only to have security push them back. And in 2011 at the Academy Meloy called out the many empty seats in the pit and encouraged fans to fill them. On this 2015 night, the commentary was of those in a premium box near the stage’s front, who Meloy referred to as the Duke and Duchess of Philadelphia (the other box had only a single piece of royalty from Pittsburgh). A band for the common man and woman who desire Victorian pulp fiction and adult fairytales, The Decemberists want all to enjoy, even if a bit of sarcasm floats about.
This enjoyment could be seen when Meloy got the crowd to sing some “la-di-das” for “16 Military Wives” after Conlee began the song with a keyboard flourish from Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True.” And much of “Down By the Water” and “O Valencia!” was mumbled by the fans as the band nailed each jangly hook.
The ending was a hoot as well as the epic seafaring tale “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” implored all to scream as if they were being eaten by a whale. With a brilliant cardboard cutout of a whale that is only a little more polished than the first one I saw back at the Electric Factory in 2005, The Decemberists reminded all that their music is about fun for the soul. May they provide us with many more musical adventures in the future.
Alvvays opened playing songs from their brilliant 2014 self-titled debut. Led by Molly Rankin, the band’s catchy riffs filled the Academy to the brim. They sounded as if they belonged on such a big stage, which is sure to bring them even more dividends in the future.
Singer Addresses His Audience
Hank Eat Your Oatmeal ->
Rox in the Box
Snippet of Dreams (Fleetwood Mac) ->
Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect
Make You Better
The Wrong Year
Hazards of Love 1
A Bower Scene
Won’t Want for Love
Down By The Water
Sixteen Military Wives
The Mariner’s Revenge Song